by Len Lear
Of all the restaurants that we have been to in the past year, my recommendation for the best one to visit for a holiday repast is definitely Cibo Ristorante Italiano. Someone recently asked me if I have lived in Philadelphia for my whole life, and I answered, “Not yet.” So I do know that there just might be more Italian restaurants in Philadelphia than daffodils in May, but there is only one that features live pop and Broadway music every night. (There are also two in South Philly that feature operatic music.)
That is the you-nique Cibo Ristorante Italiano (Cibo means “food” or “nourishment” in Italian.), which opened at the end of July, replacing Walnut Street Supper Club at 1227 Walnut St. (Walnut Street Supper Club opened in late 2012, replacing Portofino, which had been there for more than 35 years.) It is ideal for the holidays because of the great, authentic Italian food by a chef from Naples as well as the talented young singers who exude enthusiasm and charm that are palpable.
The singers just also happen to be servers who wait on customers in between their performances. During our recent visit, our waitress, Kristi Graf, was not only a delightful and efficient server but also a beautiful, spectacular singer who would be right at home on the finals of “The Voice” or “American Idol.” We were convinced that our ear-licious server was the best singer of the night, but other customers probably felt the same home-team favoritism for theirs. One other singer had a pained expression as if she were wearing shoes a few sizes too small, but she sure could sing.
Anthony Cardillo, originally from Naples, is the chef at Cibo who has more moves in the kitchen than a U-Haul truck. His food is bringing smiles to the faces of customers, many of whom are tourists and conventioneers. Cardillo came to the U.S. 33 years ago and was previously a chef at Il Gallo Nero, La Veranda, La Buca and La Collina. Anthony has a face on which emotion can play like a wave on the beach. His face responds to questions like a flower swaying in the breeze, but he has the intensity of a hundred suns.
“I left La Collina to come here because I love challenges,” said Anthony during a recent interview. “What makes us different from a lot of other Italian restaurants in the area is that we actually have chefs from Italy. We know our ancestors, and we know our food. The only way you can be a chef is to love it. I work six days a week, long days, weekends, holidays, etc. We make our own desserts, breads, pastas and Italian after-dinner liquors (bananacello, limoncello, etc.). You have to love in it; otherwise, what’s the point?”
Since Cardillo took over the ignition at Cibo, he has bitten into the job like a juicy peach and is mining flavors with sophistication, seasoned with a technique that allows top-quality ingredients to fulfill their potential. We recently had gnocchi at another Italian restaurant that was as gummy as members of a nursing home bridge club, but at Cibo the home-made gnocchi Bolognese is soft pillows of elegant pasta that packed the intensity of a laser beam, all curtained by a classic Italian meat sauce ($20).
Anthony also plumbed great flavors with the classic seafood fra diavolo — toothsome lobster and shrimp with a spicy marinara sauce that was a beacon of gustatory joy ($34). All entrees are served with vegetables and potatoes. There is a wide selection of California and Italian wines, beers and cocktails with whimsical names like “Some Like it Hot,” “Marilyn Monroe” and “Old Blue Eyes Martini.”
If Cardillo keeps moving full-throttle in the direction of fine dining, he may have to find out what it’s like to navigate the choppy waters of fame. At the very least, Cibo could easily become a reassuring talisman for those who like fine entertainment with their fine food. (A caveat: the music can get supersonic in its decibel level and should be toned down so as not to kill conversation.)
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the owners of Cibo purchased the restaurant earlier this year from Ralph Berarducci, who owned the building that housed Walnut Street Supper Club for two years and before that, Portofino for 35 years. Ralph, 78, is legendary for having one of the biggest hearts in the Delaware Valley. For more than 20 years he has been providing hundreds of free turkey dinners annually at Thanksgiving time to many of the city’s most destitute individuals.
It has been said that you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets, and Ralph is one man whose hands are always giving to others. Every year Ralph contacts local shelters and churches that serve the poor and homeless, and he invites those neediest of Philadelphians to come to the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day for a free turkey dinner. “As a condition of the sale,” he explained, “the new owners agreed to let me come back every Thanksgiving to continue our tradition of feeding the poor. This is a service I owe to God. He told us that if we have a loaf of bread, we must share it with those who have nothing.” (Ralph’s Thanksgiving dinner last month fed about 600 people.)
Cibo has an arrangement with the Parkway Parking Garage on South 12th Street, between Sansom and Walnut Streets (entrance on the west side of the street), just one block from the restaurant. With a stamped ticket, you only pay about $10. More information at 215-923-8208 or www.cibophiladelphia.com.